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At the very least, for children, a more rigorous schooling in the history of religion would seem to be in order, particularly since the media environment that envelopes them “is now transmitting less and less useful information, and more and more that is entirely useless.” Early in this collection Eco admits that he might occasionally appear “apocalyptic.” In fairness, though, isn’t entirely bleak.It includes appreciative pieces on the Harry Potter novels and the mystery novels of Rex Stout.
“I am by nature, out of skepticism, always inclined to doubt any conspiracy,” he writes, “since I believe my fellow human beings are incapable of dreaming up a perfect one.” Moreover, “only naïve Freemasons and followers of bogus Templar rituals believe in a secret that remains unbroken.” Far more frequently, people spill the beans—particularly when financially incentivized to do so.
Eco recalls the British army officer who, in the 1990s, received a publisher’s compensation as well as media fame for detailing his extramarital affair with Diana, Princess of Wales.
“The opinions expressed on Twitter have no relevance,” Eco writes, “since everyone is talking—those who believe in the appearances of Our Lady of Medjugorje, those who go to fortunetellers, those who claim that September 11 was planned by the Jews, and those who believe in Dan Brown.” (He frequently mocks Brown, the author of fanciful, alternative-history fictions like 2003’s , which suggested that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and began a dynasty of French kings.) In the liquid society many millions bid for attention, apparently driven by the sheer pleasure and excitement of being noticed.
In the past, says Eco, people assumed recognition or praise was somehow earned, attached to the display of some skill or virtue widely prized.
What is notable, Eco observes, is an “unbridled individualism” prompting people in the liquid society to “move from one act of consumption to another in a sort of purposeless bulimia: the new cell phone is no better than the old one, but the old has to be discarded in order to indulge in this orgy of desire.” In a 2005 essay, he contemplates the cell phone in all of its culture-changing glory, hailing its convenience but regretting the way it has muscled its way into nearly all aspects of human life, forcing “a loss of solitude, of silent personal reflection,” and condemning its users to “a constant presence of the present.
Change doesn’t always equate with liberation.” In a 2013 piece, he looks doubtfully at Twitter, equating it with “a village or suburban bar” where the locals talk over each other with boasts and complaints that, in more placid surroundings, would never be voiced.
(But at least, he cracks, “you no longer need to ask why people read Dan Brown.”) In a 2009 column on living in the computer age, he declares himself “no traditionalist,” noting that he happily supplements his huge print library with easy-to-use digital editions of the , among other tomes, on a capacious hard disk.
Still, he acknowledges the limitations of digital media, including the inevitable arrival of obsolescence in which, for example, floppy disks are followed by digital diskettes, and then rewritable disks, and then USB memory sticks—with each change tied to costly upgrades in computer hardware.
Today’s communications media, Eco writes, “seem to be aimed more at the broadcasting of information than its conservation.” So, “I’m happy those books are still there on my shelves, useful backups for the time when electronic instruments eventually pack up.” Eco’s Leftwing Traditionalism Actually Eco was a traditionalist, of a sort—a left-leaning, sometimes cranky agnostic who nonetheless understood Western culture and loved its marvelous and often religiously inspired accomplishments, its literature and art.
As an Italian he registers with displeasure a growing disrespect for Christian symbols like the Crucifix, which is now commonly used as a piece of jewelry, seen “nestling in the chest hairs of Italian Lotharios” or dangling from the necks of young women “who go about with their bare navels and skirts around their groins.” He points to the religious illiteracy of many schoolchildren in his country who, faced with a painting by Fra Angelico or some other Renaissance master, can’t begin to understand why a young woman is depicted “in conversation with a winged youth,” or why an “unkempt old man” is pictured “leaping down a mountain carrying two heavy tablets of stone and emitting rays of light from two horns.” “It’s virtually impossible,” Eco writes, “for people to understand, let us say, three quarters of Western art unless they are familiar with the Old and New Testaments and the lives of the saints.” He mentions Benedetto Croce’s well-known remark that “we cannot call ourselves Christians”—referencing all Europeans, practicing or not, whose civilization retains such deep Judeo-Christian roots.